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The Tsunami that Never Came

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By Alan Balutis March 12, 2008

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Over the last several weeks in Government Executive and elsewhere one has seen articles playing off the phrase coined by Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer of a pending "retirement tsunami." Brian Friel of Government Executive probably put it best: "Since the beginning of the decade, federal human resources watchers have been predicting a tsunami of baby boomer retirements that would empty government offices, leaving a handful of ill-prepared Generation Xers to handle all of Uncle Sam's work. How many times have we been told that half the federal workforce and 80 percent of senior executives would soon be out the door?"

The answer clearly is "too many times." I've discussed the matter with Human Resource experts in government and here is what I would come out with as a bottom line:

  • The yearly increases in retirements projected by OPM were clearly too high;
  • Retirements have increased, but not as much as expected;
  • Lots of speculation on the reasons for the above, but no one seems to really know;
  • Regardless, certain agencies -- Friel notes the Social Security Administration, others include the Federal Aviation Administration -- and certain occupations -- Federal Times has highlighted IT and medical

    personnel -- do seem to be getting hit harder; and finally,

  • Strategic planning for Human Resources is still badly needed.

I think the last bullet may be key. This is a matter that has not gotten the proper attention in government. It took the "scare" of a retirement tsunami for the Government Accountability Office to put the issue on its high-risk list and for the Office of Management and Budget to add it to the President's Management Agenda. While the tsunami has yet to break -- and perhaps as a governmentwide issue or wave, it never will -- there is still a need for strategic HR planning. The real strategic thinker will look below the surface. She or he will see where the retirements are really coming and the needs really exist.

In other areas, in certain occupations, the government may actually want to encourage departures. Such positions may no longer be needed in the same numbers as in the past. In other cases, the losses can and will be devastating. Perhaps we can put the alarmist language aside. But if we do, let's not undermine efforts to strengthen government's HR planning capacities and the need for strategic thinking there.

What say you?

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